Monday, June 21, 2010

Aging, Memories, and Birthdays

This weekend I saw an old family friend for the first time in about ten years. We met when I was about 3 or so and her daughters were about my age; we lived near them, on and off, when I was a kid. I hadn't seen her in a long time but she was visiting my parents this week.

Three things really struck me about seeing her again. One, I was shocked by how old she looked. This is partly because she is a chain smoker and also has always liked tanning. Her face is very, very wrinkled even though she is about my mom's age (and my mom looks like she's 20-30 years younger).

It is hard to believe how much someone can change and it made me feel my own age a bit. Doesn't help that she now has many, many grandchildren (her daughters are all my age and have kids, several in high school). I always have a hard time remembering that I am old enough to have a kid in high school, or even starting college. Technically, that was one road my life could have led down. I don't have kids, but I am at an age where I could have teenagers!

The second thing that struck me was how funny memories can be. I am notorious for having a poor ability to remember things from my childhood. "You were never there" is a phrase that they sometimes say to me as a joke, because they will mention some event or place and I won't remember it. "That's okay, you were never there." It would be funny except I don't like not being able to remember my own childhood well. Things are very blurry and sometimes I'm not even sure if what I remember is my own memory or the story being told later from my parents (I remember the story or the photo but not the event).

Worse, I remember somethings very inaccurately. I told my mom a story of something that happened in my childhood and she said, "It didn't happen that way at all." Apparently everything I remember about that incident--remember with great clarity--is false. It never happened. I guess I have to believe her. She was the adult. I was only about 7 years old. It is more likely that she would remember it clearly.

Still, if my mind can play tricks on me there, how can we be sure about any of our memories? Worse, even events that just happened can be seen entirely differently from two people. This has happened before, where my husband's brother claimed one thing happened at an event but it was very different from our view of the same event--within days of an event we had two different views. Apparently, two people can be at a soccer game but interpret one person's actions completely differently.

How can we believe eyewitnesses at a crime scene if everyone believes what they saw is the truth but everyone saw something different? It happens--Rashomon principle at work. Scary.

The third thing that struck me was that she said her youngest daughter (about 1.5 years younger than me, with several children) was soon celebrating her 40th birthday and was planning on writing a blog about it. This amused me greatly. I know I am not the first person who has faced a personal milestone (for most people the 40th birthday, but for me it is an upcoming 42nd birthday) by reevaluating her life (and doing it in a public forum through a blog); still, the fact that someone else I know would be contemplating doing what I have been secretly doing for several months was amazing to me.

I guess it is because birthdays remind us of aging--and make us wonder if we are doing the best we can with our lives. Birthdays remind us that we are mortal; we have only so much time in this world. Many of us feel like we should/could/want to do more and so we reevaluate our lives when a birthday comes around.

While I don't think we need a "memento mori" facing us all of the time, reminding us of the depressing fact that we are mortal, it is good that we are striving to be our best. Seeing the wrinkled face of this old family friend was a bit of a "memento mori" to me. She is a part of my childhood and now she is suddenly (to me) so much older.

She is also a grandmother (meaning that my childhood friends are now parents of children older than the age we were when we were friends). I can hardly picture this. I don't even know what these girls look like when adults. I picture an 8 year old girl and try to imagine her as a parent to a teenager.

Where have the years gone? It's more important than ever that I figure out where my life is going. Time moves by so swiftly.

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